Top judges could review lenient sentences for fuel and tobacco fraud
Northern Ireland's most senior judges could review unduly lenient sentences for fuel and tobacco fraud under Executive proposals published today.
Prison terms have tended to be suspended in Northern Ireland and the Court of Appeal could be asked by the Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory to consider whether a harsher penalty is merited, the Justice Department said.
No prison sentences have been imposed for fuel duty evasion in the last decade.
Justice Minister David Ford said: "The absence of custodial sentences in Northern Ireland for excise fraud is in stark contrast to what is happening in England and Wales and I believe that it is essential that this is addressed.
"I therefore believe that the Director of Public Prosecutions, as for many other serious offences, should have the power to refer convictions for fuel and tobacco excise duty evasion to the Court of Appeal where he believes the Crown Court judge's sentence is unduly lenient."
The maximum sentence for excise tax evasion is seven years imprisonment.
Since 2010/11Northern Ireland sentencing for fuel duty evasion has broken down as approximately 60% suspended prison sentences and approximately 40% non custodial, with no custodial sentences imposed in the last decade.
This compares with England and Wales where, since 2010/11, and with a much less significant problem in this area, there were 56% custodial sentences and 44% suspended custodial sentences.
Environment Minister Alex Attwood has called for tougher penalties to be imposed after his department spent almost £500,000 in one year on cleaning up toxic sludge dumped by fuel launderers. Most of the problem centres in South Armagh.
Only 15 people have been convicted of fuel fraud in the last three years.
The uncollected revenue from non UK duty paid diesel in Northern Ireland was estimated by Revenue & Customs (HMRC) at £160 million in 2010/11 - that is 25% of the market share. This was an increase from £70 million in 2009/10.
The non-UK duty paid market includes both the illicit market and legitimate cross border shopping consumed in Northern Ireland.
The Justice Department is consulting on the proposed extra powers for the Court of Appeal and responses should be submitted by August 30.